Fish are aquatic animals that, with very rare exceptions, live their entire lives in the water. They can live in fresh or salt water.
As far as the kitchen is concerned, there are two main types of fish, regardless of whether they came from sea or lake: lean fish and oily fish. Lean fish are any fish called “white fish”; they are less than 5% fat. Oily fish are known as “blue fish”. They will have anywhere from 5 to 25% fat and will have darker, stronger tasting flesh.
To be successfully smoked, a fish needs to have a high oil content, or it will dry out. Hot-smoked fish that was smoked above 140 F (60 C) needs no further cooking; cold-smoked fish does. Low-fat fish, though, such as cod, dry well.
Only ocean fish is ever used raw for sushi; freshwater fish is always cooked.
When buying a whole fresh Fish, look for red gills, and eyes that look alert (even though they’re dead) and that are bulging out, as opposed to sunken in and dull. There should be no fishy smell.
Some of these reasons still put people off fish:
- Bones, both a nuisance and a danger;
- That indescribable fishy taste and smell;
- The head on the fish with those eyes staring reproachfully at you;
- Not many people know how to fillet a fish and get rid of the bones.
We get mixed messages from the media today. It’s not surprising, considering that the media has to present different viewpoints, but some of it is likely owing to laziness in just reporting press releases that land on their desks.
On the one hand, we are told to eat more fish, way more fish. On the other hand, we are told that farming fish is bad for the environment. Yet, there is no way to meet the demand for fish that the media is creating without farming the fish, which the media then deplores.
At various times, we are told to avoid certain types of fish for environmental reasons. A few months later, there are pleas to buy those fish in articles on unemployment in those particular fishing niches.
Small wonder that people are confused.
The term “whole fish” designates a fish that comes as is, straight out of the water. No preparation has been done to it. Whole fish can appear to be a better buy per pound, but remember that in preparing the fish you are going to throw a lot out. Still, though, it does end up somewhat cheaper as you’re not paying someone to do that work for you.
Whole fish needs to be bang-on fresh, as the entrails are still in there and they are what cause a fish to spoil really fast. This is why you often see fishermen cleaning their fish right on the docks. When buying a whole fish, allow about 500 g (about 1 pound) per person.
Dressed Fish (Cleaned, Drawn)
The fish has been cleaned, in so much as all the entrails and the scales have been removed (though not all fish need scaling.) The head, tails and fins are left on. There will be a slit that was made through its belly to allow for the cleaning to happen. The French, though, to avoid slitting the fish, may draw out the insides with a hanger through the gills. The bones are left in and the skin is left on.
It is the bacteria in the entrails that causes fish to spoil quickly, so a cleaned fish will last longer.
When buying a dressed fish, allow 3/4 pound per person (350g.)
In addition to being dressed (see above), the fins, tail and head have been removed. Otherwise the fish is “whole”, it’s not cut into pieces, and the skin is left on. Smaller fish, such as fresh sardines, are usually cooked whole this way, as are some larger fish such as trout and catfish. If you are going to grill fish on a barbeque, or to stuff them, it is easier to work with them this way. The term “pan-dressed” is used because with the head and tail cut off, most fish will fit into a frying pan of some size.
When buying a pan-dressed fish, allow 1/2 pound per person (225g.)
Fish fillets are made from the sides of the fish, cut away from the spine and removed in one piece. They are usually boneless in most fish, though some fish will have bones called “pinbones” that come out from the spine into the fillet. These bones may or may not be removed, though they usually are as there is a general consumer expectation now that fillets mean boneless. Often the skin is left on one side of the fillet. There are usually two fillets cut per fish. When buying fillets, allow 1/4 to 1/2 pound per person (110 to 225g.)
A fish steak is a cross-section of the fish cut through the backbone. The backbone will be left in it, along with other bones, and the outside edges may still have the skin on them. They are usually cut 3/4 inch to 1 1/2 inches thick (2 to 4 cm.) They are made from larger fish such as tuna, salmon, groper, mackerel, etc. They are not made from flat fish. Fish steaks are more fiddly to eat because of all the bones in them, and are therefore cheaper than fillets. When buying fish steaks, allow 1/4 to 1/2 pound per person (110 to 225g.)
To descale a fish, cut off the fins, leaving the tail on. Hold onto the tail, and with the back of a knife scrape from the tail towards the head. Rinse.
Lighting a candle in the kitchen when cooking fish is often said to help prevent the fishy smell from building up in the house. It doesn’t really work.
Fish that are good for braising include cod, haddock, halibut, plaice, sole, sea bass, and sea bream.
Cooking Times for Fish
Typical cooking mistakes with fish are (a) overcooking it and (b) the opposite, which is underestimating how long it needs to cook. This usually happens on a barbeque, where beef steaks may be being grilled for as little for about 2 to 3 minutes a side. In this case, the fish needs to have a head start.
Though some fish will require special cooking times, the general method developed by the Canadian Department of Fisheries is the one that most people in the world seem to have adopted:
- 10 minutes per inch of fish cooked on a grill, in a frying pan, baked, etc.
- 15 minutes per inch of fish cooked in a sauce
- 20 minutes per inch of frozen fish
The “per inch” refers to the fish at its thickest part. Using this rule for a 3/4 inch salmon:
- barbequing/grilling takes three-quarters of the 10 minutes, which is .75 of the 10 minutes, which is 7 1/2 minutes;
- cooking it in a sauce takes approximately 11 minutes;
- cooking it from frozen takes approximately 15 minutes.
If you’ve thawed the fish before cooking, then the 20 minutes frozen rule doesn’t apply; the 10 or 15 minute rules do.
When you are frying or grilling, you should obviously flip the fish half-way through its cooking time. Just flip it once.
When cooked, fish flesh will be opaque and will flake easily with a fork.
Don’t salt the fish before cooking, as salting draws out moisture. Oil the fish, except for oily fishes such as mackerel or sardines. No fish should need marinating any more than two hours — don’t over-marinate, because acidic sauces can actually cook the fish — witness the Latin American dish “ceviche”, in which the fish is cooked in a vinegary sauce without ever seeing any heat. If there is skin on the fish, leave it on. It will help keep the fish intact and protect it from drying out. Cut deep slashes through the skin to allow an even heat to penetrate into the fish. Unless the fish is “cook from frozen”, set it out of the refrigerator about 30 minutes before barbequing to allow the insides to just come to room temperature, for more even heating. If you are not using a basket to cook the fish in, try to turn it only once to prevent its coming apart on you.
Frying fish with coating or a batter
You need to have a good amount of oil in the pan, so that the fish can float in it. Otherwise, it will touch the bottom of the pan and the coating will stick to the bottom of the pan. Allow at least 1 1/2 inches or 2 inches (5 cm).
The problem is having the crust, coating or batter coming off the fish during frying. To help avoid this:
- don’t use anything coarse as the initial coating;
- if using egg, it is better not to use milk that will thin it, unless you are using a recipe that calls for it (and compensates for it);
- allow coated fish ready to fry to sit for a few minutes before frying. Ideally, refrigerate for 30 minutes, but if not possible, at least a few minutes on a plate.
There are two different schools of thought on how to apply the coating in a way that will actually get it to stay on the fish, and not fall off:
- Roll fish in coating or seasoned flour, then dredge in egg, then fry. Others do egg dip first, then coating. In any event, just one layer of coating or batter, which is fish and chip style;
- Dust with flour, then egg dip, then a coating, which can include coarser items such as breadcrumbs, cornmeal, etc, on the outer layer. Dust with a fine medium, such as flour, rather than a coarse one such as cornmeal or matzo or breadcrumbs. The finer medium will help the batter to adhere better. Many use rice flour, as it is very fine. Whole wheat (wholemeal) flour will have more flavour than white flour.
If using a meat thermometer, the minimum safe internal temperature given for most fish seems to be 155 F (68 C). Parasites and tapeworms that may be present in fish will be killed at 140 F (60 C). Hot-smoking, if the temperatures exceed 140 F (60 C), as they normally do, will also kill them.
Curing fish for 5 to 7 days will kill parasites and tapeworms, but only provided that the curing involves salt. It can be a dry-salt cure or a wet-cure using brine.
The parasites and tapeworms can also be killed by freezing. Both Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommend only eating raw fish if it has first been frozen commercially for at least 15 hours at -31 F (-35 C) or 7 days at -10 F (-23 C). Home freezers generally can’t get low enough to do the trick; that’s why they stipulate “frozen commercially”.
In Canada, the province of Ontario had even passed a law banning the use of unfrozen raw fish for sushi. The province’s Chief Medical officer, though, acknowledged in Dec 2004 that “medical concerns about parasites were overblown”, and recommended to the government to strike down that law.
Use fresh fish within a day of purchasing it. You can wrap it in the meantime in plastic wrap. Fish stored on ice should be placed in such a way that water from the melting ice will drain away from the fish.
To freeze fish, it must first be dressed (cleaned). Whether you then freeze it in one piece or cut it up is up to you. You can wrap it in plastic wrap, and then put it inside a freezer baggie or give it a second wrap with tin foil. Or if you buy milk or juice in cartons, take an empty carton, open it up at the top, rinse it out well with water only, put the fish in, fill with water to cover the fish, close the top and freeze. You can also place it inside a plastic bag if you want. Don’t use soap to wash the milk carton out with, or use a carton in which milk has gone bad, as the taste will remain and go into the fish. If you do freeze the fish in this way, when you thaw the fish the water is a bonus fertilizer for any outdoor plants you have.
It was traditional in the Catholic Church to have “meatless Fridays”, on which Fish was eaten instead of meat. After the Anglican Church in England broke off from the Catholic Church, Fish consumption dropped dramatically, though avoiding meat on Fridays was still Anglican “official” policy. To bolster the fish market, English authorities tried twice to re-instate meatless days. In 1548, they tried to make it Saturdays, and in 1563, they tried to make it Wednesdays. Neither attempt was successful: in fact, it is Fridays that still remain the big day for fish and chip shops throughout Britain.
The famous fish market in London was Billingsgate in the City of London. In 1982, the market moved to the Docklands in London.
Literature & Lore
“The Greeks and Romans, though they had not made as much progress as we have in the art of seasoning fish, esteemed it very highly, and were so delicate that they could even tell where it had been taken.” — Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. The Physiology of Taste, Section IV. The Turkey. Project Gutenberg, Apr 2004. First published Dec 1825.
St Andrew is the patron saint of fishermen.
In Dublin, “one and one” is slang for “fish and chips”.
“Fish should smell like the tide. Once they smell like fish, it’s too late.” — Oscar Gizelt (Chef, Delmonico’s Restaurant, New York).
“A very ancient and fish-like smell.” — William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616. The Tempest. Act II, Scene 2.)
Sometimes people, or organisations such as the United States Food and Drug Administration, get more vague about their definition of fish, and include clams and oysters in it. This then leads to their having to use terms such as “shellfish” for things like oysters, and “finfish” for — well, for fish.
Sampson, Susan. At the fish counter you may not get what you pay for. Toronto Star. 11 November 2009.
Talaga, Tanya and Ferguson, Rob. Frozen-sushi rule about to melt. In Toronto Star newspaper (Toronto, Canada). 2 Dec 2004.
University of Delaware Sea Grant Program. Eating Raw Fish. Retrieved from http://www.ocean.udel.edu/mas/seafood/raw.html in May 2004.